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The Second Battle of Ypres is the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s baptism by fire. The CEF had been in Europe for about six months, and the majority of the men had never experienced combat.
Combat was an experience, many believed, that tested a man’s masculinity.
“Being under fire for the first time exists, as a psychological problem, only in the most shadowy form until the idiosyncrasies of the individual man have been taken into account,” a Vancouver Daily World’s medical correspondent said. “Under fire these men found a self hitherto unsuspected, that elusive quality which for want of a better title is called manhood.”
Background on the Battle
The battle took place April 22-May 25, 1915 near the town of Ypres in Belgium.
Ypres is pronounced ee-pruh. English speaking soldiers, however, nicknamed the area Wipers.
The attack took place because Ypres was the final major Belgian city still in Allied hands. The attack was meant to divert Allied attention from the Eastern Front.
The nations involved were Belgium, French colonial troops from Algeria and Morocco, the British Empire including the Dominion of Canada, and Germany.
The Major Events of the Battle
The Allies were on the defensive. Ypres was strategic for defense of the English Channel and the French forts in the vicinity.
- The Germans released chlorine gas against the Algerian troops on April 22. Many died quickly, were taken prisoner, or broke ranks and retreated.
- Canadian troops filled the line and managed to keep it from falling into enemy hands.
- On April 24, the Canadians were gassed.
- Canadian medical officer John McCrae was inspired to write his famous poem “In Flanders Fields” after a friend was killed in the battle. The poem is the reason poppies are a symbol of remembrance on Memorial Day.
The Canadians had nearly 6,000 casualties in their first major engagement of the war.
- Ypres was reduced to rubble.
- Total casualties: 69,000 Allies, 35,000 Germans.
- Other chemical weapons, including mustard gas, were developed as a result of the success of chlorine gas.
“But it is considered that the mourning in Canada today for husbands, sons or brothers who have given their lives for the empire should have, with as little reserve as military considerations allow, the rare and precious consolation which, in the agony of bereavement, the record of the valor of their dead must bring,” the Vancouver Daily World said. “And indeed the mourning in Canada will be very widespread, for the battle which raged for so many days in the neighborhood of Ypres was bloody…”
To learn more about the Second Battle of Ypres, read my book A Tale of Two Nations: Canada, U.S. and WW1.
What are your thoughts on the first large scale chemical weapon attack in history? Leave a comment below.
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Updated: 19 July 2018